Israel tourism officials are more concerned over the new transatlantic fare structure, which strengthers European competition, than about possible effects of recent terrorist attacks in which tourists were among the victims.
In facts, the number of tourists arriving in Israel is still growing remarkably. Seventeen percent more arrived during the first five months of 1978, compared with the corresponding period last year, despite the fact that the average expansion of tourism the world over is not expected to exceed 9 percent. However, Yoram Blizovsky, director of tourism administration at the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, admits to a certain uneasiness over prospects from the coming months.
Blizovsky still maintains that his originals forecast of 1.2 million tourists for 1978, an increase of 15 percent over the previous year, will be fulfilled. However, he is also aware of the somewhat disturbing picture of hotel bookings for the coming months when the main bulk of Israel's annual tourism is expected. Robert Richman, manager of the Tel Aviv Sheraton, says that advance bookings for the next few months show a definite decline over the same period last year. Tourism is Israel's major source of foreign exchange.
The attack by Palestinian terrorists on Israelis traveling on the Coastal Road in March, the bomb in a tourist bus in Nablus which killed two German tourists in April, as well as the labor troubled that ground Israel's national airline for 18 days in April, could endanger the flow of tourists, Blizovsky says. But the biggest immediate threath is cheap transatlantic fights, he emphsizes.
"Our main worry is that more Americans will decide this year to go to Europe during the months of July and August when normally a quarter of all our tourists arrive."
Blizovsky explained in an interview. "We are therefore concentrating out efforts on obtaining a new air face structure between North American and Israel."
He was referring to three man moves. One is EL AI's request to the CAB, supported by the Israeli government, to add three gateways in the United States by obtaining landing rights in Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. New york is its only gateway at present. The second is the appeal to the CAN by TWA and other airlines to be granted APEX rates for flights to a number of destinations, including Tel Aviv. The third hope has to do with an internal Israeli argument. Two years ago the tourism administration was able to convince the government to allow charter flights from the West Coast of the United States. It now hopes to have this permission broadened to include the East Coast, and other points as well.
Is the danger of a slowdown of tourism from North America, source of clients for local four and five-star hotels, that has tourism officials as well as hotel owners worried. Already one can notice a shift in the Israeli tourism map. The number of American tourists is declining and the number of European visitors is constantly rising.
At the same time, one could notice last year another shift in the pattern of tourism to Israel. The proportion of Jewish visitors is declining. Bedore the Six-Day War in June 1967, about 45 percent of all travelers to Israel were Jews. After the war, when the Old City of Jerusalem, Jericho and other historical places in the West Bank were opened to Jewish visitors, this ratio was reversed. However, under the current trend Jewish tourists again are becoming the minority.
These two changes in the pattern of tourism have the same effect: They mean less business for the top hotels, mainly those along Tel Aviv's beach front.
While there is an abundance of rooms in Tel Aviv, where several additional luxury hotels were opened in the past year, there is a shortage of rooms in Jerusalem. The 5,500 rooms in the capital, including those in three and four-star hotels, as well as in hotels in East Jerusalem, cannot handle the growing interest in visiting the Holy City. American tour operators complain that since they cannot obtain two or three-day bookings for their 10-day package tours of Israel, they are sometimes obliged to forget the package because they cannot sell it without Jerusalem.
Five hundred additional hotel rooms are now under construction in Jerusalem and 3,000 more rooms are ebing planned. Despite generous government subsidies to investors in the form of cheap loans, investors are complaining about red tape in getting their plans approved and the long period needed for construction. Although costs are not estimate to exceed $28,000 per room in five-star hotels, investors maintain that at this level the feasibility of new hotels is highly questionable.
The shortage of hotel rooms in Jerusalem is an indication that, despite all efforts made in the past 11 years to develop other areas, Jerusalem, with its holy places and scenic beauty (enhanced in recent year as result of efforts by indefatigable mayor Teddy Kollek), is still Israel's "big hit."
In the past three years, however, Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat, once just a "promising" tourist attraction, had become Israel's second tourist hit. The gamble on building a string of hotels along the shores of the year-round warm-weather Gulf of Eilat that would attract mainly winter tourism has paid off. Fourteen weekly charter flights tht land directly at Eilat in the winter tourism has paid off. Fourteen weekly charter flights that land directly at Eilat in the winter months, as well as other flights that bring the visitors to Eilat via Israel's main gateway, Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, keep Eilat's facilities fully occupied for at least five months a year.
Tourists who come to Eilat to swim and sunbathe have found it a convenient headquarters for week-long hikes into the southern Sinai mountains with their breathtaking rugged beauty, or for scuba diving and fishing escapades at Sharm-el-Sheikh, near the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Other spots on the Sinai coast have become unofficial beaches without any publicity.
Travel agencies and tour operaors in recent years have increased their efforts to bring Christian pilgrims to Israel, not only for Christmas and Easter but all year. Last year there was a significant increase in the influx of groups from America's Bible Belt.
These Protestant Fundamentalists, walking in the narrow alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, meet Roman Catholic groups from France and Germany, as well as black-garbed peasants from Greece and Cyprus coming especially for the Greek Orthodox festivals such as Easter. For the Christian pilgrim Galilee is the main attraction after Jerusalem.
The Israeli government has made an effort to open up the northern part of the country to tourism.Though the Plaza Hotel in Tiberias, managed by the Canadian Pacific chain which also runs the Jerusalem Plaza, has barely been discovered by visitors since it opened late last year, we found it to be one of the most beautifully designed and best managed hotels in Israel. Yet the investors indicate they have a serious problem: "How can you bring tourists to a five-star hotel located in a three-star town?" one of them asked. But Tiberias, like the rest of Galilee, is rapidly overcoming its "three-star" status.